In choosing the outlying areas of Brighton as the setting for her down-to-earth new coming-of-age drama Perfect 10, debutante feature director Eva Riley fittingly uses the city’s less familiar spaces and places to enhance the feelings of isolation and outsiderdom experienced by teenage protagonist Leigh (Frankie Box).
A lonely, aspiring gymnast dealing with the death of her mother, her unreliable dad and the arrival of the half-brother she didn’t know existed, Leigh lives among the working-class estates, community centres and industrial buildings that visitors to the city rarely have reason to think about. Dysfunctional families, petty crime and stifled aspirations all pervade Riley’s film, but it’s balanced out with moments of tenderness, humour and, ultimately, hope.
Brighton and Hove, the city formed by two joining resorts, is a destination whose image, both in real life and on screen, is constantly in flux and open to new representations, which shift with the times and changing demographics.
A fixture in British cinema since its earliest days, the city conjures up myriad stories, opportunities and memories – for characters on screen and for the viewers who watch them. The home of the ‘dirty weekend’, once known as ‘Soho-on-Sea’ and famed for its Regency splendour, Brighton at the movies is a Rabelaisian playground, a romantic escape and an unwelcoming, crime-ridden hellhole all rolled into one. As the gay capital of the country, an enduringly popular seaside resort and a bohemian, student-friendly bolthole, the city is many different things to many different people.
Here are 10 of its best starring roles.
Bank Holiday (1938)
Director: Carol Reed
Directed by Carol Reed for Gainsborough Pictures, Bank Holiday takes place – as Carry On Girls (1973) would decades later – in a fictional seaside resort that is still clearly recognisable as Brighton. Whereas the bawdy Carry On film memorably rechristened the city as Fircombe-on-Sea, Reed’s romantic comedy went for the less eyebrow-raising name of Bexborough. Through a combination of stock footage, flashbacks, location shooting and studio sets, the director delivers an essentially frivolous romp undercut with a hint of melodrama.
Bearing similarities to the Hollywood hit Grand Hotel (1932), Reed’s film focuses on a variety of characters who travel down from London to Bexborough to enjoy the bank holiday sun on the coast. Romantic distractions, family dynamics and seaside activities occupy the ensemble throughout their respective adventures. A record of how Brighton looked just before the Second World War, Bank Holiday also provides a snapshot of the social mores, fashions and pastimes popular during the period.
Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)
Director: Robert Hamer
Based on a Roland Pertwee play staged the same year, Ealing’s adaptation saw studio mainstay Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets) assume solo directing duties for the first time. Pink String and Sealing Wax was made during a period when the Victorian era was a subject of renewed fascination with the general public. This dark thriller, set in the 1890s, had the added attraction of harkening back to a real poisoning case that had occurred in Victorian Brighton.
A grim tale, it’s dominated by the scene-stealing performance of the late, great Googie Withers as Pearl, an abused and adulterous innkeeper’s wife who resorts to murdering her husband by poisoning him with strychnine. Though shot entirely on a studio set and taking extreme liberties with Brighton’s geographical make-up, in recalling the actual, fatal poisonings carried out by Christiana Edmunds, Hamer’s film underlines why the city was once disparagingly dubbed ‘The Queen of Slaughtering Places’.
Brighton Rock (1948)
Director: John Boulting
Co-adapted with Terrence Rattigan by Graham Greene from his own 1938 novel, the Boulting brothers’ noir-tinged Brighton Rock has since gone on to be recognised as one of British cinema’s greatest and most influential crime thrillers. Drawing chilling inspiration from Brighton’s notorious razor-gangs of the 1930s, its vision of the coastal resort is light years away from the carefree, family-oriented destination portrayed in Bank Holiday a decade earlier. Indeed, the local council were so alarmed of potential damage to the tourist trade that they demanded a disclaimer be added to the film’s opening.
Starring the then 25-year-old Richard Attenborough in an early, magnetic performance as teenage, psychopathic gang-leader Pinkie Brown, Brighton Rock was largely shot on location. The racecourse, Palace Pier, bustling seafront and shopping streets added recognisable authenticity to a bleak tale of crime, betrayal and murder.
Director: Val Guest
Tagged as ‘The most baffling whodunit ever filmed’, Val Guest’s engrossing, undervalued 1962 crime drama Jigsaw is also one of the Brighton films with the most local flavour. Starring the hugely popular Dixon of Dock Green star Jack Warner, in his penultimate big screen outing, as Detective Inspector Fred Fellows, it was described by The Guardian at the time as “possibly the best depiction of the seaside town on film”. Guest’s film had an extensive location shoot, making evocative use of Brighton’s police headquarters, many of its well-known streets and shops, as well as the surrounding towns and villages of Lewes, Peacehaven and Saltdean.
While loosely adapted from Hillary Waugh’s police-procedural novel, Sleep Long, My Love (1959), Jigsaw also drew on the infamous 1934 case of the Brighton trunk murders, when the discovery of the remains of two women stuffed into trunks sent shockwaves around the country.
Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
Director: Richard Attenborough
As far as anti-war movies go, this cinematic take on Joan Littlewood’s pioneering 1963 stage musical, itself based on Charles Chilton’s 1961 radio play The Long, Long Trail, is as challenging and piercingly forthright as they come. That Richard Attenborough chose this Brechtian musical to be his directorial debut is testament both to the ambition of the late actor-director and to his belief in the strength of the material and its message.
A devastating satire of the First World War (and war in general), Oh! What a Lovely War uses numerous locations in and around Brighton as striking environments for its skewering of the decision-making and political machinations that led to such catastrophic loss of life on all sides. The iconic West Pier and its pavilion, Brighton seafront and the surrounding, untouched beauty of the South Downs have rarely appeared as jarringly poignant as they do here.
Director: Franc Roddam
A non-musical reworking of The Who’s seminal 1973 rock opera of the same name, Franc Roddam’s directorial debut is one of the finest portrayals of British subcultures yet seen on the big screen. It’s an evocative, fictionalised record of the bank holiday seafront battles between mods and rockers that made for sensational headlines in the mid-1960s.
Young mod Jimmy (Phil Daniels) escapes his humdrum existence by disappearing into a world of music, drugs and sex, but it’s a lifestyle that steers him into trouble once he makes the short trip from London to the south coast. After getting arrested for his involvement in the culture-clash riots, his already fragile mental state frays ever closer to breaking point. The film’s ambiguous climax at Beachy Head is especially powerful given the location’s sad history as a suicide spot.
The End of the Affair (1999)
Director: Neil Jordan
The second big screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair, following Edward Dmytryk’s 1955 version, is an elegant, immaculately staged romantic period drama blessed with a trio of leads all at the top of their game. The eighth collaboration between director Neil Jordan and actor Stephen Rea, The End of the Affair also stars Ralph Fiennes as novelist Maurice Bendrix and Julianne Moore as his on-off mistress Sarah, the wife of Rea’s civil servant Henry Miles.
Like the classic London-to-Brighton car-race comedy Genevieve (1953) and Jordan’s own Mona Lisa (1986), The End of the Affair isn’t a Brighton film from end to end, but it does include important sequences set in the city, when the reunited lovers escape there for a weekend of romance and fun. Reality is never far away, however, with Henry tracking them down and breaking the news of Sarah’s terminal illness. This highly symbolic scene was shot at The Royal Pavilion, where the Prince Regent once spent time with his mistress.
Me without You (2001)
Director: Sandra Goldbacher
Spanning the early 1970s to the early 2000s, director Sandra Goldbacher’s self-penned Me without You is an engrossing tale of two female friends whose clashing personality traits will eventually spoil their decades-long relationship. Free of schmaltz and sentimentality, the narrative focuses on the co-dependent but toxic bonds that develop between bookish, ‘mousy’ Holly (Michelle Williams) and the more easy-going, effervescent Marina (Anna Friel).
It’s during Holly and Marina’s years spent studying at university in Brighton in the early-1980s that liberation, desire and personal ambition bring the toxic nature of their friendship to the surface. Dingy student digs, lecture halls and nightclubs are the backdrop to a poisonous and psychologically damaging love-triangle between the friends and visiting American professor Daniel (Kyle MacLachlan). Given the city’s reputation for sexual freedom and all manner of hedonistic pursuits, Brighton is an entirely apt location for Holly and Marina’s emergence into a world of adult experience and its sometimes painful consequences.
London to Brighton (2006)
Director: Paul Andrew Williams
There’s no seaside fun and sightseeing to be had in Paul Andrew Williams’ searing and grimy feature debut, London to Brighton. Shot on a minuscule budget of £80k and bagging Williams the new director’s award at the 2006 Edinburgh Film Festival, his self-written tale of child sexual exploitation, the London underworld and murder is not for the faint-hearted. Bruising, unflinching and naturalistic, London to Brighton does nothing to promote visiting either the capital or the popular seaside destination.
Reprising their respective roles from Williams’ earlier short, Royalty (2001), Lorraine Stanley as prostitute Kelly and Johnny Harris as Kelly’s low-life pimp Derek both deliver powerful performances. These adult stars are more than matched, however, by the young Georgia Groome as Joanne, the 11-year-old runaway whose vulnerability makes her easy prey but whose actions are the catalyst for the retributive violence that follows. In Williams’ film, London and Brighton alike are locations fraught with danger and populated by ruthless, unscrupulous men.
Down Terrace (2009)
Director: Ben Wheatley
A crime family descends into paranoia, madness and cold-blooded murder in Ben Wheatley’s genre-splicing debut feature, Down Terrace. Think The Godfather performed in the style of Eastenders, with an added dash of jet-black humour, and you’re in the ballpark of what to expect. Heralding the arrival of a major British filmmaking talent, Down Terrace was shot on a micro-budget of around £20k but more than makes up for budgetary constraints with its inspired, off-beat screenplay.
Co-written by Wheatley and Robin Hill, Down Terrace stars Hill and his father, Robert, as Karl and Bill, son and father respectively of a dysfunctional family operating a crime syndicate out of their home on the eponymous Brighton estate. Largely shot within the confines of the Hills’ actual family home on Down Terrace, Wheatley’s claustrophobic comedy-drama eschews Brighton’s iconic landmarks to focus on family loyalties, oddball characters and outbursts of emotionally charged violence.
Originally published: 6 August 2020